Literary Translation at the Times.

Katherine J. Igoe writes about this week’s special issue of the New York Times Book Review (archived):

The art of translation was on Gregory Cowles’s mind. It was the beginning of 2023, and Mr. Cowles, a senior editor on The New York Times Book Review, noticed the section was assigning more reviews of translated books than usual. […] He approached Juliana Barbassa, the deputy editor for news and features on the Books desk. “There’s this whole question: What is translated? Who decides that? Are we getting a full picture of what’s out there?” Mr. Cowles said.

Both editors saw the potential for a project that would bring attention to the craft in a new way. The first part of their monthslong effort appears as a special issue of The New York Times Book Review this weekend. In it, readers get a glimpse of the world of literary translation.

“For a very long time, translators were very much secondary characters. Their names weren’t on the cover, there was little recognition, they had few rights over the work. The pay was, and remains, not great,” Ms. Barbassa said.

The issue aims to show the wealth and diversity of translation work. It includes 13 reviews of translated books from across the globe, including a collection of translations by the famed Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who left an indelible imprint on the works he interpreted. There is an essay on Constance Garnett, who translated more than 70 Russian texts into English and believed deeply in the political ideals she was bringing to English-speaking readers.

The Book Review’s children’s editor, Jennifer Krauss, reached out to Mr. Hahn, whose translation diary had inspired the issue in the first place, to write an essay on the intricacies of translating children’s picture books. For the Book Review’s roundtable discussion, Ms. Barbassa led a conversation with five recognized translators who spoke about their craft in a 21st-century context, tackling thorny questions of funding, access and diversity. […]

A feature from the Book Review explores the variety of interpretations that are held in a text. The classicist Emily Wilson, who published a new translation of the “Odyssey” in 2017 and will release one of the “Iliad” later this year, presents a passage from the “Iliad” translated five ways. In renditions from 1611, 1715, 1898, 1990 and 2023 (Ms. Wilson’s), each is marked by a distinct time period, translator bias and style.

The next phase of the project will be published in the coming weeks. Two digital interactive features will give readers an opportunity to follow translators as they work out the puzzles inherent in their work.

The first analyzes passages from two Spanish-language novels, one from Fernanda Melchor’s “Hurricane Season” and another from Alia Trabucco Zerán’s “Clean.” Sophie Hughes, the translator for both books, writes out what the original text intends to convey, and then takes a stab at converting it into recognizable English. The reader follows along as Ms. Hughes goes back, starts again, pauses and reworks the words until each line resembles what feels to her like the most faithful interpretation. […]

The second interactive feature focuses on the visual history of translating Japanese manga into English. Pitched by Gabriel Gianordoli, a design editor who worked on the project and reader of the Japanese comics, the article demonstrates how initial manga adaptations in the 1980s catered to English readers with extreme modifications and how, over time, modern manga translators have learned to extract more faithful renderings.

I’ll link to Jennifer Wilson’s essay on Garnett and the roundtable with Samantha Schnee (a translator from Spanish), Allison Markin Powell (Japanese), Jeremy Tiang (Chinese), Mui Poopoksakul (Thai), and Bruna Dantas Lobato (Portuguese), and I’m looking forward to the interactive features — the Times does a great job with such things. It’s nice to see translators getting some love!


  1. Ha, the “By the Book” interview column features Jennifer Croft this week — she’s the wife of an LH favorite!

    Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

    I fell in love with my husband, Boris Dralyuk, as he was translating Mikhail Zoshchenko’s “Sentimental Tales” from Russian. He wooed me by recounting the tales every evening on my doorstep as he picked me up for dinner, carefully, paragraph by paragraph.

  2. Bathrobe says

    Would love to see the different translations from the Iliad. Translation styles are in some ways a kind of “fashion”, changing over time.

  3. You can see them at this archived link.

  4. picked me up for dinner, carefully, paragraph by paragraph.

    Ooh! I think I’d rather like to be wooed paragraph by paragraph.

    An hundred years should go to praise
    Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;

    The darn wingèd chariot business, though, at our ages.

  5. David Marjanović says

    Chapman’s 1611 version is definitely the most fun. And the most singable.

    These will be nothing; leave the cares of war to men, and me
    In whom, of all the Ilion race, they take their high’st degree.”
    On went his helm; his princess home,

  6. John Cowan says

    the article demonstrates how initial manga adaptations in the 1980s catered to English readers with extreme modifications

    That garden-pathed me good and hard. “What extreme modifications? Body piercings, and if so, what would be ‘extreme’ in the 1980s? Surely it doesn’t mean non-medical amputations …”

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    Here is the link:
    Unfortunately, you need to subscribe to read the article…

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